Published in the Spring 2007 issue • Features
Breaking the Silence
When it comes to fighting back against rape, resistance is not futile. So why aren’t we talking about it?
I slip onto the subway at Pape station in Toronto, late to meet my friend, as usual. I sit down across from a couple, thinking, “Hey, that dude has a really young girlfriend.” The car is relatively empty and I check my watch again. I’ll never make it to St. George station in time. I glance back at the couple. The guy is well into his fifties. He has his arm around the woman’s shoulder and he’s whispering in her ear. “This looks strange,” I say to myself, because he’s so much older and bigger than her. Then I realize she is looking directly into my eyes. “Wow,” I think. “She’s young. Just a girl.” I return her look; her eyes are wide. This feels wrong. The dude doesn’t notice me, because he’s still nuzzled into her neck. I mouth the words “Do you know him?” With the slightest motion, the girl shakes her head. I pat the seat beside me, and she practically jumps across the car to sit with me, while the man squirms in silent embarrassment. She whispers to me that she was scared and felt stupid because he was saying awful things to her and she didn’t know what to do. She is 14 years old.
What might have happened if I hadn’t noticed her? Could she have attracted someone else’s attention? Maybe. Would she have hit the “press for assistance” alarm? Perhaps. Might she have dashed away when the doors opened at another station? Who knows. One thing is certain: if the man intended to cajole her to a more isolated place so he could have sex with her, she foiled his attempt. In fact, many rape attempts fail. That’s awesome, but it’s not generally part of our overall understanding of sexual violence. The thing is, lots of women fend off sexual coercion and violence without recognizing it. Some ways of resisting are so subtle or mundane that they don’t seem to count as resistance.
Beliefs and fears
Without denying the existence of widespread and very serious acts of actual violence, it is important to understand that beliefs and fears about rape can bolster a culture that tolerates it. The most powerful myth that supports rape culture is that men are naturally predetermined to commit acts of rape, and women are unwilling or unable to fight back. This myth permits an attitude that men can rape women without consequence. Meanwhile, it also perpetuates women’s fears of becoming victims of sexual violence; fears that can strictly limit their behaviours, relationships, and social and physical movement. Taking a closer look at the many ways women can — and do — resist sexual violence becomes an important way to rethink beliefs and fears about rape and, as feminist academic Sharon Marcus has said, “rewrite the script” that supports rape culture.
I began teaching women’s self-defence classes — small, community-based workshops of maybe five or six students — almost 10 years ago, and I’ve heard women offer numerous reasons why they can’t defend themselves. “Oh, I couldn’t do that because I have bad knees,” they’ll say. Or, “I can’t do that, I’m 72.” I’ve heard, “But I only weigh 110 pounds!” and “C’mon, I don’t have a black belt,” and so on. Practically speaking, however, women fend off sexual violence with extraordinary frequency. In the same settings where women share their beliefs about why they can’t do it, I hear women discuss instances in which they have, indeed, managed to prevent many forms of sexual coercion before they lead to rape. I’m always amazed by what comes out in these workshops, and I strongly believe that sharing accounts of resisting violence has an effect on how women feel about coercion, sexual violence and rape.
Why the silence?
Despite ongoing acts of resistance, there remains a general lack of visibility in public institutions, in popular culture and even in some feminist scholarship, about women fighting back or managing to prevent rape attempts. Why do we, as women, so rarely hear empowering and diverse stories about managing to prevent violence in our lives?
Seeing women as victims of violence rather than as resisting violence supports a neo-liberal political climate in which legal institutions focus on “smart” risk management, while government-funded “victim services” agencies take a therapeutic approach to sexual violence. (Few crisis centres across Canada are still operated by collectives and run without a heavy reliance on government funding.) Acts of resistance and collective spaces where those accounts can be shared among women do not fit into a neo-liberal state’s framework, one that perpetuates myths of women’s “helplessness” as well as women’s “responsibility” for rape.